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'Free Food For Millionaires' by Min Jin Lee
'Casey needed a plan to escape Elmhurst.'—Review #206
I was browsing Mercer Street Books a few months ago when saw Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, ‘Free Food For Millionaires.’ I loved ‘Pachinko,’ and I tell everyone to read it, but I wasn’t interested in this copy because I don’t like hardcover books. The universe, however, made me take it from the shelf and open it. Aha! There’s a short inscription written in blue pen on an inside page—in the author’s hand! I recognized Lee’s handwriting because she once inscribed a book to us (through a friend, long story), which is one of the great moments in Books on GIF history and proof that she is a very nice person. My first thought: Wow, a signed first edition! A diamond in the rough! My second thought: How did it wind up in a secondhand bookstore? Why would someone part with it? My third thought: Jeez, I hope nothing bad happened. I bought it on the spot.
Here’s the cover:
‘Free Food For Millionaires’ follows Casey Han, the hardworking and headstrong daughter of Korean immigrants, who in the early 1990s has just graduated from Princeton. During a family dinner back home in Queens, she argues with her father, who is upset she hasn’t landed a job yet, one week after graduation. Things escalate, and he punches her in the face. She leaves and heads to her boyfriend’s apartment, catching him in flagrante with two women he picked up at an East Side bar. She’s like:
With nowhere to go and in desperate need of self-care, Casey gets a room at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel and pays for it with a brand-new credit card. That night sets her on a years-long journey through family issues, relationship issues, career issues and money issues—a path fraught with questions. Should she go to law school? Should she go to business school? Should she work herself to the bone as an assistant to stockbrokers? Should she keep working weekends at the chic department store owned by a friend and benefactor? Should she pursue her passion for millinery? Should she take her cheating white-guy boyfriend back? Should she date her friend’s cousin who’s got a good job and also is Korean, but has a gambling problem? Should she do something about her poor spending habits? Casey has a lot on her plate. In trying to navigate the early stages of her adulthood, she draws on her faith, lapsed though it is, through a daily routine of copying Bible verses as a form of Morning Pages, and gets advice from her friends, including the department-store owner who’s always telling her to:
Through her own struggles and those of people around her—a close friend goes through a heartbreaking divorce, and her mother has a harrowing and life-threatening ordeal—Casey learns many life lessons. Among them are that hard work is no guarantee of success or happiness, that traditional definitions of success (becoming a doctor or lawyer or businessperson) don’t work for everyone, and that forgiveness and grace are possible. The characters in this book are constantly making mistakes and hurting people they care about, Casey included. I don’t want to spoil things, but while Casey understands that some wounds cannot be healed, she also learns the power of giving and receiving a second chance. Humans are flawed, but they’re not cartoon villains, like:
I enjoyed following Casey’s journey in ‘Free Food For Millionaires.’ It’s a straightforward story that moves quickly (though I think the book could have been a bit shorter). I encourage you to check it out. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to ponder the mystery of the inscription in my copy. There must be a story behind it, and how the book ended up in the shop. Maybe one day I’ll get to ask Min Jin Lee about it. Until then, I’ll preserve it on my shelf.
How it begins:
Competence can be a curse.
As a capable young woman, Casey Han felt compelled to choose respectability and success. But it was glamour and insight that she craved. A Korean immigrant who’d grown up in a dim, blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, she’d hoped for a bright, glittering life beyond the workhorse struggles of her parents, who managed a Manhattan dry cleaner.
Casey was unusually tall for a Korean, nearly five feet eight, slender, and self-conscious about what she wore. She kept her black hair shoulder length, fastidiously powdered her nose, and wore wine-colored lipstick without variation. To save money, she wore her eyeglasses at home, but outside she wore contact lenses to correct her nearsightedness. She did not believe she was pretty but felt she had something—some sort of workable sex appeal. She admired feminine modesty and looked down at women who tried to appear too sexy. For a girl of only twenty-two, Casey Han had numerous theories of beauty and sexuality, but the essence of her philosophy was that allure trumped obvious display. She’d read that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis advised a woman to dress like a column, and Casey never failed to follow that instruction.
Who they thanked:
Min Jin Lee’s acknowledgements are straightforward. She thanked family, friends and others who supported her in writing the novel.
‘Free Food For Millionaires’ by Min Jin Lee was published by Warner Books in 2007. 560 pages. $17.66 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #205
Read this: ‘“I’ve Been Suffering For Years.” Law Roach on the reasons behind his sudden retirement from celebrity fashion styling,’ in The Cut is fascinating, insightful and deep.
Get this: BoG friends Elizabeth and Aya have launched another pop-up newsletter. Meet Cute Missives features essays about rom-coms. So far, there are pieces about Jane Austen and Bridget Jones. (I may or may not have contributed a forthcoming essay about a Lindsay Lohan movie.) Subscribe!
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Until next time,